After UFC 250’s conclusion on June 6, Dana White wasn’t talking about the fights in the Octagon at the organization’s fifth event without fans. He was forced to discuss his own battles with some of the company’s biggest stars, specifically Jon Jones, Jorge Masvidal and the newly-“retired” Conor McGregor.
“I’m doing what I can do to keep the bus on the highway, or the train on the tracks,” White told reporters at his post-fight press conference. “If people don’t want to fight, you don’t have to fight. If you’re afraid of COVID-19, or whatever your deal is, you don’t have to do it. I couldn’t explain to you anything that’s going on on planet earth, and neither can anybody else.”
The comments came during a unique time in the UFC’s history. Jones and Masvidal both took to Twitter in the weeks prior to UFC 250 to ask for their respective releases from their contracts. Then, just moments after UFC 250, McGregor posted a lengthy tweet, announcing his retirement for the third time in his career.
“If these guys want to sit out and retire right now, or anybody feels uncomfortable in any way, shape or form, with what’s going on, you don’t have to fight,” White explained. “It is all good. So if that’s what Conor McGregor is feeling right now, Jon Jones, Jorge Masvidal, I feel you. It’s not like I’m going, ‘Holy s—, this is crazy, this is nuts.’ Nothing is crazy and nuts right now, because everything is crazy and nuts right now.”
Fans would think, with all of the drama going on and the lack of other sports since COVID-19 struck in March, that it would be a perfect storm for both fighters and fans to take advantage of. But, some UFC stars seem to feel differently.
“The game just does not excite me, and that’s that,” McGregor told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani after he posted his retirement message. “All this waiting around. There’s nothing happening. I’m going through opponent options, and there’s nothing really there at the minute. There’s nothing that’s exciting me.”
That same lack of excitement created the issues surrounding Jones, the UFC’s light heavyweight champion.
With limited challengers available in his division after wins over Anthony Smith, Thiago Santos, and Dominick Reyes, Jones would likely square off against Jan Blachowicz in his next title defense. Instead, Jones has been pushing for a superfight against hard-hitting heavyweight Francis Ngannou, who finds himself in a similar stalemate in his division.
After tweeting about the start of his negotiations with the UFC back in late May, Jones voiced his displeasure with the process, explaining that White and the company’s higher-ups weren’t willing to pay top dollar for the light heavyweight to jump up a weight class.
“Before even discussing numbers, the UFC was unwilling to pay more for the Francis super fight / for me to move to heavyweight,” Jones wrote. “Said I could possibly earn more in pay-per-view buys.”
Jones’ financial frustrations continued online past UFC 250, as the 26-1-0 (1 NC) fighter explained his thought process throughout the negotiations.
“I fought mega fight after mega fight throughout my early 20s for under 2million a fight,” Jones wrote. “Who knows what I’m actually owed, makes me feel like a fool even thinking about it.”
White found himself dealing with similar demands when it came to Masvidal, a hot commodity in the UFC’s welterweight division.
For months, fans have been awaiting an announcement regarding Masvidal’s future, whether it includes a title shot against welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, a rematch/”BMF” title defense against Nate Diaz, or a star-studded fight against Conor McGregor. Instead, there’s been silence.
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Then, after Jones requested his release due to a lack of financial compensation, Masvidal joined the fray with his own demands, first tweeting, “If I’m not worth it let me go.”
“I’m not an independent contractor if I can’t go anywhere else to make a living,” Masvidal wrote on Twitter. “Let me go and let me see if I’m worth it.”
Masvidal was even retweeting Jones’ posts about wanting to be “treated fair,” and continued his own push after UFC 250, as well.
“I’m in a contract that I had to take to get paid,” Masvidal wrote. “Same way I got a new contract to fight till. Then a new contract to fight Nate. They keep extending the amounts of fights to my contract to keep me locked up and when I say I only want a 4 fight contract it’s take it or leave it.”
So, with three of the UFC’s biggest stars putting pressure on the company to make it all worth it, and a global pandemic to deal with on top of it all, White was left wondering about the future.
“I am the only guy that is pulling off sporting events right now,” White said. “I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the next f—ing month with my business. I don’t know. I don’t give a f—.”
But, if UFC 250 and the days that followed were any indications, the UFC appears to be in good hands if McGregor, Jones and Masvidal don’t wind up fighting in 2020.
UFC 250 was looked at as “moving night” for the bantamweight division, and the 135-pound fighters took advantage of the spotlight in a big way throughout the event.
The upstart Sean O’Malley delivered with his walk-off knockout against Eddie Wineland, former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt left fans speechless with his buzzer-beating knockout against Raphael Assuncao, and No. 2-ranked Aljamain Sterling put on a show with his quick submission against No. 4-ranked Cory Sandhagen.
Amanda Nunes, the women’s bantamweight and featherweight champion, solidified her status as the best female fighter in UFC history, and continues to increase her starpower in the process if the company can find a worthy challenger. If not, a superfight against women’s flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko would surely draw some big numbers for diehard fight fans.
Heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic and former light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier sparked the conversation on Twitter with their respective posts about being ready for a trilogy fight, potentially Cormier’s last in the UFC. And, if Miocic’s “The time has come” tweet didn’t fire up fans enough, D.C. posting about literally signing on the dotted line surely sent them over the edge.
The UFC’s welterweight division appears to have a new challenger already lying in wait if Masvidal decides to hold out, after Gilbert Burns showed his worth in a dominant win against former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.
At lightweight, McGregor’s old rival and current champion Khabib Nurmagomedov should be set up nicely to continue to lead the division with or without the Irishman, between his next fight with interim champion Justin Gaethje and a variety of options after the fact.
And, in Jones’ light heavyweight division, a title vacation may be the best-case scenario for the other fighters in the rankings. Fighters like Santos and Reyes, who came up just short against Jones and likely wouldn’t get a rematch anytime soon, could get the chance to jump back into the title picture, and a fighter like Blachowicz could keep his momentum moving without fighting arguably the best fighter in UFC history.
There are tons of options for White and the UFC to consider, and the doors are wide open for fighters to rise to stardom in potentially the only time in sports history where the spotlight is exclusively shining on them.
While McGregor may say that “there’s just no buzz for me” and explain that there’s not a lot of excitement in the UFC, the promotion’s fighters are showing otherwise.
So, if things continue at the pace they’ve been on over the five events held during the COVID-19 pandemic, that train that White is trying to keep on the tracks should be able to keep chugging along and stay on course throughout 2020.